In the end of the 8th century, the first Vikings began their journey from Scandinavia. For over two hundred years, they were going to sail across the world and put fear to their enemies. The myths about the Vikings are still today very vivid and strong. Say the name "Viking" to someone and maybe the first thing one thinks of is a giant man with a weapon of some kind in his hand, who never would hesitate when it comes to fight or even kill someone. And we know that the Vikings were successful in battles, at least at the beginning of the Viking Age. But what made them that? Why were the Vikings so successful (from a military point of view) ? To accomplish this task we will compare the Vikings arsenal, boats and organisation with their opponents, particulary the Franks. We will also investigate how psychology affected the Vikings' military success.
The Vikings Arsenal
The Viking arsenal did not possess many types of different weapons, but it was still effective at the beginning of the Viking age. To make the description of the weapons more clear I will when I write about every Viking weapon compare it to weapons of the Frankish arsenal. Facts found for this text have its base in relics found in Viking graves or in Viking homes.
As said before, the spear was a standard weapon among the Vikings. It only had a small edge of metal at a longer handle of wood. This made it easy and cheap to make and also manageable as both a thrusting and slashing weapon. It was an effective weapon since it did not take much training to use. The Vikings could also throw spears, and they used the spears as both thrusting and slashing weapons. Although the general thought is that the Vikings used the spears with two hands, they may very well have used the spears with a shield, making them more effective. The typical Viking spears where long and thin and where constructed so they could be used as both thrusting and slashing weapons. The Franks, among others, equipped their infantry with spears that where about nine feet long and where given to their infantry (Almost all of the Vikings where infantry). The spearmen did often protect the horsemen/cavalry, which is different from the Vikings, since they used the spearmen as effective as other units in offensive capacity; but then again, they did not have any advanced cavalry unit. The Vikings could throw all their spears in the beginning of a battle and then attack the remains of their enemies with some other equipment. This is, however, not a unique tactic for the Vikings.
The shield was also a common object on the battlefield, since it was made of wood and cheap to make. It also had the quality of cheap equipment since it only lasted in one battle. Ox hide covered some shields in order of making them of a better quality. Now, the main difference between the two shield types was that the Franks had kite shields while the Vikings had their circular shields. The kite shields oval squared form made that they protected more areas of the human body while worn, but was harder to manoeuvre because of its size. The circular shield, on the other hand, was easier to manoeuvre because it was slightly smaller, but then the carrier actually HAD to manoeuvre it in order of protecting the parts of the body that the Kite shield could protect without to much effort. Except the difference of form between the two shield types, they were pretty similar in general since they both where of wood and both types could be covered in oxhide.
The long knife was a common weapon. This was not a superior weapon, but it was as well a tool as a weapon and where therefore found among almost all of the Vikings. It was used as a machete or regular utility knife among the Vikings. The long knife did also not have a blade longer than the spearhead, so there was not expensive production costs. The long knife was not unique for the Vikings but in other countries, for example the Frankish countries, the soldiers used daggers or short swords. All these weapons were very common and most people on the battlefield used them.
The axe has somehow become a characteristic for the Viking. The one handed axe was as common as the spear and long knife, even for other countries, but there were a number of different types of axes. There was the regular, one handed axe, which also could be used as a tool and this axe did not differ from Frankish axes at all. However, there where also the two handed axes, that was about 1-1,5 metres in length, with two edges and that could cut through a shield and kill the man behind it. This great axe was unique for the Vikings, and very rare in a battlefield. This differed greatly from Frankish axes and the Franks did not really have anything that could be compared to this since most other countries had started using the sword by the time that the Vikings became associated to the axe. Practically all Vikings having spears and long knifes equipped did also have a one handed axe with them. The one handed axe was almost as usual to the rest of the world as to the Vikings. The one handed axe could be used after throwing away your spear at the enemy.
And the last weapon in the arsenal, the sword, was a favourite weapon and known, as a weapon of status, but actually it was too expensive to be common. In Viking graves there have been documented that there often was an axe standing for being the burial weapon but it has been rare ever finding a grave where a sword where located. Mainly because there were huge amounts of metal needed, making it a whole lot more expensive in making if you compare the costs for making a spear, which only had a 25-50 cm long and thin spearhead. Since the costs where so high, only Viking kings or men in ranks near a king would have this weapon. But the sword where not entirely made by the Vikings, since the blade was imported from the Franks! The blade was sharp on both edges and about 90 cm long. The sword where mostly made for slashing and where therefore not as effective for thrusting. After the sword had been imported a while, the Scandinavian smiths started to copy the design. The swords where carried in one hand, accompanied by a shield making the swordsmen very effective at the battlefield. Since the swords where imported from the Franks, there where no difference between these two sword types, other than the Franks had it easier getting their swords so it was a more common weapon in the Frankish arsenal. The Franks used the swords in the same way the Vikings did except that they had different shields of course.
The helmets of the Vikings are a pretty discussed chapter because of the mention of horns. Therefore it must be verified that THE VIKINGS DID NEVER HAVE HORNS ON THEIR HELMETS. This is a huge historical miss that was made after a finding of a helmet of Celtic origin in a Danish Viking excavation. The helms where, just like the swords, only used by the rich and wealthy since they where made of iron. The Viking helms where first influenced by the roman cavalry helms that where called Vendel helms. The Vendel helm was eventually replaced by the simpler, but effective, spangelhelm. This helm was made of four triangular plates of metal and over these there was a pair of criss-crossing bands and a final band circled the rim. Some differences between the helmets where that some had splints in back instead of neckplate while others had elaborate crests running from the centre of the forehead back over the crown. The Franks did also use the spangelhelm so there where not a big difference in the use of helmets. If the common Vikings ever wore a helm, it was probably a leather hat, which was cheaper, but evidence have not been found for this. This can however be explained by the fact that leather decays and is therefore seldom found in graves etc.
And so we have finally come to the armour of the Vikings. The armour was also only a war gear worn by the richest men. The most appreciated armour among the Vikings was the byrnie, or shirt of chainmail as it also was called. Actually, the Franks and Vikings did not differ from the Vikings to much when it came to the use of armour since both Vikings and Franks used the chainmail, but they also had leather armour for the ones who could not afford an expensive chainmail. The chainmail was made by putting iron rings in a series of four by punching them from a plate and the fact that it required 30000 rings in one average shirt made it very expensive because of the effort made in making it. Most of the shirts had half-length sleeves and covered from the shoulders to the legs. The mail shirt offered good protection against a sword and axe blow but not so much protection against the thrust from a spear.
Viking Organisation and Opportunism
The Viking age begun with the sudden attack on the monastery of Lindisfarme in 793 AD. Although according to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle the raids started a few years earlier. The monastery was located on an island and at the time it was believed that no one would be able to attack for the see, nor did any one believe that someone could be barbaric enough to attack a monastery, so the monastery was unprotected and couldn't defend itself. This made Lindisfarme into a very good target for the Vikings. But Lindisfarme was not the only monastery that would be plundered. One year later a convent in Jarrow a few miles from Lindisfarme. The plundering of Lindisfarme and Jarrow and the wealth that the plunders brought home started a wave of Viking raids many targeting monasteries.
During the earlier Viking age there were no real centralised power and most of the power rested on local chefs and warlords, kings existed but their power where limited. The only nation that seems to have had a strong king is Denmark but after the death of the Danish king Godfred in 810 this centralised power crumble with different nobleman fighting form power. The first Viking raids where most likely organised by a few chefs that banded together under the command of a chosen leader or a local king. Most towns at the time didn't have any standing troops ready to defend them against an attack, and therefor relied on early warning to give time to form a defence. Since the Vikings came from the see such early warning was a luxury and a typical Viking raid would have been over and the Vikings gone, long before enough troops had been assembled to fight the Vikings.
Britain and Ireland were at the 8th and the 9th century divided into many small kingdoms with kings that where constantly struggling to increase their own power. That meant that the kingdoms were ill prepared to defend themselves against the Vikings. The Vikings seems to have known about the lack of organised resistance because during the earliest Viking age Britain and Ireland where raided almost every year. During the late 8th century and the beginning of the 9th century the Frankish Empire were the only European empires that were organised enough to actually fight the Vikings. During this time few Viking raids seems to have been conducted against the Fransish Empire instead the francs seems to have been to once that where on the offensive. The interests of the Frankish king Charlemagne and those of the Danish king Godfred did not go had in hand and after a failed military campaign Godfred withdraw to Denmark and begun building a wall to fortify Denmark's southern boarder. After the death of the Frankish king Louis I 840 the Frankish Empire was split up and three years of internal struggling followed. During this three years the first major Viking raids against the Franks is conducted. The internal struggles made the Frankish Empire as vulnerable to the Viking raids as the British and Irelands had been. It is reasonable to suspect that the Vikings picked targets that were vulnerable and that that is why the Frankish Empire was relatively saved from Viking raids until 841 ad.
To defend against the Vikings the Vest-Frankish King Charles II creates a system of grand Vassals with extensive military power. This unfortunately weakens the central power of the kingdom and therefor makes the kingdom vulnerable for the more organised Viking raids that starts to appear at this time. If the Vikings begun organise themselves to respond against the more organised defences of their targets is hard to tell but during this time the first Viking raids with more then a thousand Vikings take place. One of the fist towns to be raided by such a massive fleet is Paris. 845 a Viking fleet of over one hundred ships besieged Paris and the Charles II is forced to pay a huge ransom of seven thousand pound of silver to end the siege. The rumours of this huge wealth encourage more Vikings to try to do the same thing.
The Vikings' Ships Played an Important Role
The Vikings' Ships was very important when plundering villages and monasteries and in fights with other war-desirous seamen. Unlike other ships these days the Vikings' Ships were capable of navigating shallow waters. The keel on a typical Viking ship were usually about 0,5 meter beneath the water surface which also made them very fast. What is not expected from a boat like this is their good carrying capacity. Each boat were not just able to transport many men, but also horses. This made the Vikings prepared to fight at sea, as well as on land.
The ships could only be built up to heaped 20 meters seeing that the keel was made of an oak. And the keel was heavily charged since the ship's low gunwales (See picture) did not contribute with extra stability. The boats were elastic built which also prevented extra weight on the keel. The ribs were for example bound together with the boards, and not riveted. Because of this, they could not splice the keel, and therefore not build ships longer than the oak that was used. As you can notice on the picture, the boats could make their way through the water by oars which was good when sneaking in to enemies shores without getting noticed, and by sailing which is faster travelling out at sea.
Another benefit with their boats' shallow keels was that they easily could sneak up on who they were attacking. The boats could land almost everywhere unlike many other boats. A landing-stage was usually required. If they for example were going to plunder a village, no one would be suspicious until their sudden appearance and then would it be to late to get help. The Vikings would disappear as fast as they appeared, and the enemy would not have time to gather people for a counterattack.
Many villages were located in floods and rivers some kilometers from the opening. An attack from the sea was in these villages probably quite unexpected seeing that waters in floods and rivers often are very shallow. Other boats these days had often a deeper keel, which made them slower and also precluded navigation in waters like these. Because of this, they could not even catch up with the Viking' Ships.
The Vikings had the knowledge of navigating by the stars over open seas. Many seamen did not have this knowledge and were therefore forced to sail along the coast. This also made the Vikings success seeing that the risk to be observed from their preliminary target were much less sailing far from land. The Vikings attacks did not stop until villages and monasteries built coast defenses. The opponents were then able to meet the Vikings with own fleets at sea in order to prevent sudden attacks and plundering.
Psycology and Fear made the Vikings a Big Favour
A prayer in a French church sometime during the age of the Vikings said: "Save us, o God, for the fury of the Vikings." (Viking, Vikingatågens orsaker, page 26, row: 19-20) This reflects an important explanation to the success of the Vikings: Psychology. People feared them and they, apparently, feared nothing.
To start with, let us look at the Viking perspective the warrior Viking had no reason to fear death, because he believed that the way to "Valhall", the Viking idea of heaven, was dying with your sword in your hand. If you did, you would be allowed to fight every day in heaven, according to "Nordiska Gudar och Hjältesagor" (page 59). Battle was a matter of honor for the Viking and not perceived as something evil. This is not the way to paradise in other religions. In the bible, killing is considered one of the most serious sins. The road to heaven is through good deeds.
In the book "Nordiska Gudar och Hjältesagor" (page 289-290) there is a story about the Viking Sigurd, who got himself a sword. This sword gave him the strength and courage to even kill dragons. The story shows how the sword - the instrument of death - is surrounded by mystery and magic. And it also shows that, already at this time, stories and stories of this kind were told to suit the target audience. In this case, the audience wanted to hear about great battles and magic swords - it gave them courage.
But, of course, the Vikings did not only carry out their dangerous operations in far-away land for the sake of battle and adventure. Greed (gold) was an imporant motive. As said in the Gripsholm rune stone, in Mariefred, as quoted in an issue of the Historiska museet´s newspaper "Historiska Nyheter", 1980.
"Tola raised this stone after his son Harald, Ingvar´s brother With bravery he went far away to search for gold."
When the Vikings went out to collect their gold, they often did it by plundering defensless villages. This made their victims look at the Vikings with great horror. Legends and rumours such as the legends about the dreaded berserks also increased the fear for the Vikings, so did also the Viking ships and the Vikings navigational skill that allowed them to attack any settlement close to water without any warning. As a result their opponents were psychologically inferior. This enabled the Vikings to use something called the Danagäld": According to "Nationalencyklopedin" (Search-word: Danagäld) Danagäld means that people, especially in England, payed a ransom so the Vikings would not attack them. They were so afraid, that instead of having the Vikings plunder their villages and killing their friends and countrymen, they would give the Vikings land and gold.
Even in architecture the fear of Vikings could be seen. This is a picture of a defence tower near a monastery. It was built for protection against the Vikings. It indicates on that even people as peaceful as monks had to take violent actions in order to defend themselves. They feared their threat.
The viking arsenal did not differ much from their opponents and did therefore not play a major part in the Vikings' success. The major factors which made the Vikings succesful were:
- Their psycological advantage. They inspired fear in their enemies and were therefore able to win a battle before it even started.
- Their naval supperiority gave them two important advantages. They were able to attack any target that were located somewhere close to water and they were also able to make sudden attacks without giving the enemy time to organise their defenses.
- Another reason of their success was that many of the early Viking raids were conducted at already disorganised kingdoms.